Businesses apologize for discriminating against Cowichan Tribes amid COVID-19 outbreak
VICTORIA -- Vancouver Island businesses are apologizing after Cowichan Tribes members say they were discriminated against while trying to access services.
Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour tells CTV News that when he started hearing about the incidents unfolding last week, his first reaction was anger.
“Just because we are (a) First Nation shouldn’t single us out,” he said. “You don’t refuse service because they’re a Cowichan Tribes member.”
CTV News has learned that a Telus technician was completing a COVID-19 screening questionnaire with a customer and added a question asking if the individual was in contact with someone from the Cowichan Tribes.
Tony Geheran, TELUS’s chief customer officer, told CTV News in a written statement that the technician’s actions were wrong and discriminatory.
“Recently, a technician completing this process with a customer added a question that was discriminatory and not part of our standard questionnaire and was wrong to do so,” he said.
Geheran said it was an isolated incident, which “we are taking this very seriously.”
Italian restaurant Romeo’s has come forward saying they made a mistake when a Cowichan Tribes member tried to have food delivered to the reserve.
“We made a mistake yesterday regarding our ability to deliver to Cowichan Tribes during their Shelter-in-Place order,” reads a social media statement. “We have apologized to (the customer) directly, and have informed our staff of the current order guidelines.”
Seymour said there seems to be a misunderstanding around the shelter-in-place order that the First Nation enacted on Jan. 6.
“We are not on lockdown, we are not locking up our community members. We are trying to slow down the spread of this disease,” the chief said. “For Cowichan to shut down all our roads, we would shut the island down. I mean, the highway goes through the reserve.”
The shelter order asks members to stay at home as much as possible. Barriers and checkpoints have been set up on the borders of the reserve to ensure that access in and out of the nation is for essential reasons only.
The order states that any person may enter the area if they are “delivering goods to a home or a member-owned business on the restricted area.”
Romeo’s said in its statement the restaurant will be delivering to Cowichan Tribes as of Jan. 20.
“Let’s not let an honest mistake become a divisive factor in our community at this challenging time,” reads the statement.
Seymour said he has spoken to management at the restaurant.
“I talked to Romeo’s and they apologized and they apologized to my community member,” the chief said. “They assured me that services will continue and if they have to deliver to the reserve they will do it.”
The Cowichan Intercultural Society said these conversations are important to illuminate issues of power and privilege in the community.
“I think that’s people’s privilege that affords them the ability to call it a ‘misunderstanding,’” said executive director Lynn Taylor Weaver. “I don’t think it is from mal-intent but I do think we need to call it racism and address it as such.”
Telus said it has engaged with Cowichan Tribes leadership to discuss the steps it is taking to prevent incidents like this from happening again.
“They don’t mean to sound like they are racist, but they realize we are all part of one community,” said Seymour. “It’s fine for them to ask the medical questions. If a community member walks in and their first question is, ‘Are you a Cowichan Tribes member?’ That is not OK. That is racism.”
Weaver, the intercultural society director, said she’s happy that the businesses are being responsive to the community.
“Hopefully the ripples will go out beyond just the incidents,” she said.
Racist comments toward Cowichan Tribes members started surfacing online in early January after the community was transparent with its rising case numbers. The mayor of North Cowichan wrote he was “extremely concerned” by the racist comments he was hearing at the time.
Outside of the reserve, Seymour says that some businesses have been clearly stating that they will not accept Cowichan Tribes customers.
“They actually put signs on their doors that if you’re a Cowichan Tribes member you will not be served,” he said.
A joint letter was issued by the mayors of Duncan and North Cowichan, as well as the Cowichan Tribes chief, calling out businesses for the discriminatory behaviour and telling them to educate themselves on the shelter-in-place order.
“(The) majority of other stores understand what we are trying to do,” Seymour said. “They don't mean to sound like they are racist, but they realize we are all part of one community.”
Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples says businesses have started putting Hul’q’umi’num welcome signs in their windows to show their support for Tribes members.
“It’s very important to really stand together and speak with one voice that this is not acceptable where we live,” said Staples.
RCMP in Duncan confirm they are aware of the recent racist remarks and if people feel they’ve been targeted or threatened they are encouraged to reach out to police.
On Monday, Murray Rankin, the Minister for Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation in B.C., said racism has no place in British Columbia.
“Whenever incidents like this take place we have to stand up as a community and denounce them,” he said. “There’s no place for people denying service, restaurant food, deliveries on the reserve because of race. It’s simply not acceptable.”
Cowichan Tribes is the largest First Nation in B.C., with more than 5,200 members. As of Monday, 171 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the community and the shelter-in-place order remains until Feb. 5.